Palo Alto school board members urged district staff Tuesday morning to seek concrete, specific data on how well the district is or isn't meeting the needs of special-needs students and to improve the fundamentals of its program — the "basic blocking and tackling," one trustee said — before attempting any programmatic changes.
Their comments came after a presentation on the much-anticipated results of a recent review of its special-education services, which was conducted by a team of Harvard University researchers. District leaders provided their perspectives on next steps for the district, including defining the purpose and goals of special education and potentially bringing a new instructional approach to the district, called Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
Many special-education parents also shared personal anecdotes about the devastating impact that delays of services, miscommunication, insufficient training and a "wait to fail" model can have on children with special needs -- issues that were laid out in the analysis.
While noting the positive findings in the report, including high rates of inclusion of special-needs students in general education classrooms, board members also voiced serious concern about the state of special-education in Palo Alto.
"I think until we get our hands around the very basics and fundamentals of delivering special education services, I think talk about fully inclusive communities and UDL and different frameworks maybe should be put aside until we can identify the clear success metrics, measure whether we are hitting them or not and if we're not — and I expect we're not — figure out the exact things we need to do and the money we need to spend in order to achieve that," new board member Todd Collins said.
Board member Terry Godfrey said she believes some teachers are not "legally compliant" in providing students' with appropriate accommodations, particularly in high school. Member Ken Dauber said he has been "dissatisfied" with the district's progress on improving relationships with special-education families. And Collins, himself a parent of a special-needs child, said he was "disappointed" with the report, which failed to address the "key issues that I'm aware of in special education in our district," he said.
The board members asked for more specific data on how the district is setting, meeting and monitoring goals for students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 plans (which refer to Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which guarantees certain rights in public schools to students with disabilities and their parents). They queried staff on the district's quality and quantity of teacher training on special education and on research-based practices that are — or aren't — in place to guide classroom instruction and interventions.
They urged more proactive tracking and evaluation of interventions put in place, both for individual students and at the program level, such as a major investment over the last several years in increasing the number of co-taught classrooms in the district (which are led by both a general- and special-education teacher in an effort to include more special-needs students in mainstream classes).
Member Melissa Baten Caswell noted that the district is still grappling with many of the same issues identified in a report on special-education nine years ago. She asked staff for a specific plan for what they hope to address first, and how.
"I'd like to get down to the meat of it," she said.
Dauber said he is still looking for a report, either from the same researchers who conducted this one or from district staff, that provides a higher level of detail and analysis.
Their comments echoed a perspective shared by the parent-led Community Advisory Committee (CAC), which advocates for and supports special-education families, that the review did not deliver the "fine-tuned" analysis they had initially requested and expected.
"Would we have liked to see more from this review? Absolutely," said CAC Chair Kimberly Eng Lee. "But this review can inform the work that lies ahead and point leadership to developing a clear vision.
"We believe it is only through transparency and delivery of measurable progress that parental trust and satisfaction will increase," Lee said, "and more importantly that the students will become the thriving learners and citizens we all want them to be."
Parents of students with a range disabilities, from dyslexia to autism, commended the district for undertaking an evaluation of its services — a "mark of true leadership to undergo a self-evaluation," one said — but described often unending frustration with inadequate services and low expectations for their children.
Parent Leigh Metzler, holding a framed photograph of her son and choking back tears, described the impact of what the review described as a "wait to fail model that that tends to delay evaluation of learning disabilities until students have failed to make progress."
In the four years and 10 months between receiving an Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnosis to getting a 504 plan in Palo Alto Unified, Metzler said her son evolved from a smart, capable student who planned to become a computer-game designer after college to a clinically depressed, suicidal middle school student who "felt like he didn't have a chance to succeed anymore."
"This is what happens when you wait to take care of these kids," she said. "They give up on themselves."
Several parents described having to leave the district altogether and to seek private, outside help after negative experiences.
Cindy Greg said she pulled her special-needs daughter out of Palo Alto High School as a freshman "based on the complete lack of follow-through and understanding of her needs" and a "blatant disregard for her rights under fair and appropriate education."
The family is now paying for her to attend a separate educational facility, Greg said.
She and others urged the district to conduct exit interviews with special-education parents who leave the district and to track those numbers.
Parent Eugene Chow, who said his family moved to the district last year specifically for "inclusion," described a mixed experience — a strong commitment from staff to support children with special needs and high-quality resources but also a lack of trust and inclusivity in the process.
"We felt not listened to," he said. "We repeatedly felt lawyers lurking behind the staff, making it very difficult for teachers and staff to honestly participate in the meetings."
He said he felt even brief, more informal check-in meetings with teachers and staff were discouraged.
"We would much rather hear, 'Let's do what we can together,'" Chow said.
The report recommended creating a parent handbook that lays out the district's goals, available services and options for parents as one step toward increasing communication and trust. One parent urged the district to also create a website with this information, which could be easily disseminated and updated quickly.
The higher-level strategic goals are commendable, the parent said, but she urged the board to not get "caught up" in them and instead look for more immediate changes that would make a difference.
Other parents suggested additional areas of focus for the district to consider: the mental health of students with disabilities, the perspective of the students themselves and the addition of early screening for all children, among others.
District staff presented a broad plan for improvement, including pursuing four of the five recommendations from the external review. They also proposed a new "framework" to anchor this work, described as a "multi-tiered system of support" that would bring general and special-education closer together to provide support and services to all students.
The board had limited time Tuesday to discuss the report — only about 20 minutes — and shared their comments and questions without any response from staff, given the time restraint. They also postponed a discussion on the district's Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP) that had been scheduled for the same meeting.
The board will next discuss the review at a retreat in late January that will focus on districtwide goal-setting.
Superintendent Max McGee said he feels a "real sense of urgency" for prioritizing the district's next steps on special education.
"We know we do some things well," he said. "We do have pockets of excellence, but we don't want to have pockets of excellence. We have to have a full-fledged, three-piece suit of excellence."